Believe it or not, the Dutch are a happier band
Petty squabbling of the past is forgotten as Van Basten develops a harmonious squad - but Van Nistelrooy warns that best may have to wait
Sunday 11 June 2006
A whack, followed by a wince, then a whinge. Even here, amid his compatriots, Arjen Robben has discovered there is no escape from practitioners of the dark arts. Barely has he dinked a delightful left-wing cross towards the head of the advancing Ruud van Nistelrooy in a practice match when he becomes the recipient of a late, and, it must be said, unnecessary rap on an ankle from a scything challenge. Not for the first time in recent months, the lugubrious Chelsea winger provides a willing victim.
Now, you may expect it in the Premiership or Champions' League; what you don't anticipate is such treatment from one of your own Holland team-mates on day one of the squad's training sessions here at the team's training base, located above the ancient university city of Freiburg im Breisgau, surrounded by the Black Forest.
Robben cries out in pain and crumples to the turf, clutching his ankle. He receives scant sympathy and eventually rises to his feet, apparently passing an observation to the offender.
Early evidence, presumably, that relations among the Oranje are about as compatible as within the McCartney marriage. Actually, other evidence is to the contrary. Unusually for Holland, they are not ripping each other apart in a bout of inter-necine strife as they prepare for their opening Group C contest this afternoon, against Serbia & Montenegro in Leipzig.
That may be attributed to the fact that the head coach, Marco van Basten, not exactly a paragon himself in that respect as a player, can no doubt detect an antagonistic influence as readily as he once sensed an opening. His 22 months' stewardship since succeeding Dick Advocaat have been remarkably free of acrimony. Grilled by the mid-day sun, Van Basten surveys the activity with satisfaction. His players all appear "to be working well, are all disciplined and eager to do well in the tournament", he contends. The coach is assisted by his friend John van't Schip, the former Holland midfielder. By all accounts, the latter is the principal tactician; Van Basten, that grand executioner among strikers who was voted European Footballer of the Year on no fewer than three occasions, is the figurehead.
Both were summoned from Ajax. It provoked considerable debate, as Van Basten had hitherto been charged with nothing more meritorious than coaching the Amsterdam club's youth team. Indeed, he had scarcely appeared an enthusiastic convert to coaching. For seven years after injury aborted his playing career at 28, he dedicated his life to "doing nothing". Apparently he did it rather well, and frequently on the golf course.
He once explained his reluctance to join the ranks of the cone-setters. "I found that out of 10 so-called top coaches, only one is really able to inspire the team, six do no harm, and three even manage to make the team worse," he reflected wryly.
But even the sceptical Van Basten was eventually seduced by the challenge. Initial signs have been propitious. In a tough group, Holland had the best points-per-game record of all 32 finalists in qualifying. The 41-year-old has pruned and regenerated the national side with young saplings, while a number of the thirtysomethings have been told: no thanks, my old Dutch. None of the celebrated quartet of Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf, Roy Makaay and Patrick Kluivert received an invitation for the latest expedition of a footballing nation who have reached the final only twice, in 1974 and 1978. They were defeated on both occasions, by West Germany and Argentina respectively.
Van Basten defends the culling of some illustrious names. "We are just taking the best players, in our opinion," he says. "Sometimes they are still young and inexperienced. But that's the way it is." He denied it was merely a question of energy and stamina. "No. If I had five 39-year-olds who were the best in their positions, I'd select them all."
Van Basten readily concedes that the Dutch are argumentative by nature, and recalls the 1990 World Cup, in which he played. Two years after the nation's Euro '88 triumph, significantly also in Germany (although Van Basten claims "there is no added emotional stimulus" this time), in which he scored one of his finest goals, against the Soviet Union in the final, Holland were eliminated ignominiously in the second round.
Leo Beenhakker was then the coach, but there had been a behind-the-scenes clamour for Johan Cruyff. "That tournament turned into a nightmare," Van Basten recalled recently. "There was a big lesson to be learnt. When this squad gathered, I made a point of seeing each player in turn to stress the impor-tance of team spirit. I can sense a collective will to win." In his view, Van Nistelrooy embodies that esprit de corps.
The form, and attitude, of the Manchester United striker will be highly significant here. If the striker's disaffection with life at Old Trafford, and Sir Alex Ferguson, and dearth of match practice is a distraction, he doesn't betray it. "Well, you know, I've played enough," he maintains. "I've played 45 games, I think, this season for the club, so there's no problem. It's only in the last eight weeks of the season where I was on the bench five or six times maybe. And I think that can be an advantage. I joined the camp feeling totally fresh." He insists: "I've never been frustrated about it or angry [over events at United], or whatever. I'm just looking forward now."
Holland's Premiership-heavy attacking force - Van Nistelrooy supported by Robben and Feyenoord's Dirk Kuyt (Arsenal's Robin van Persie has also staked a strong claim) - will be much envied, while Van Basten has addressed perceived defensive frailties in his 4-3-3 formation by not so much returning to classic Dutch traditions but borrowing from his experiences with Milan.
The belief in Holland, however, is that it won't be until 2008 that the potential in this team is realised. Van Nistelrooy concedes: "We're in part of a process where we want to become one of the favourites in the future. This is a very young side, with a lot of Dutch-based players. It has room to develop and that can be an advantage, but you cannot grow into the tournament. You have to be there from minute one."
No Bergkamps now, no Van Bastens; time, you suggest to Robben, for performers like him to stake a claim for a similar level of status, for him to vindicate the coach's assertion that he can be the best player in the world.
Robben, 22, smiles embarrassedly. "I think that was a long time ago," he says. "It was just a nice compliment for the way I was playing at that time. At the moment, I have to do a lot more to become the best player in the world." Such as? "I need to become a more complete player. I used to speak with [Guus] Hiddink about that, when he was my manager at PSV. He told me, 'You'll never reach the absolute top, like 100 per cent, because then you're invincible, but you are capable of getting close to that. You just have to improve yourself a few percentage points each year'. That's what I try to do. This is the place to show off your qualities. We all know that the whole world is watching."
It is. But will it witness Holland rise to the challenge or, as too often in the past, discover that their most challenging opponents are themselves?
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